Monday, February 15, 2010

Mountain escape

Nestled up in the mountains near the Chinese border, Sapa was built by the French almost a hundred years ago, and is now a favourite amongst Hanoians escaping the summer heat, cultural enthusiasts and climbers. Sapa lies at the foot of Mt Fansipan, the highest mountain in Vietnam at 3143m. Surrounding valleys sport terrace-farmed rice paddies, waddling buffalo and pigs and ethnic villages. The two largest of the local ethnic minorities are the H’mong and Dzao peoples, whose traditional dress and culture transports you back to a time seemingly forgotten by the rest of Vietnam.

Women wearing brightly coloured woven head dresses and clothing and carrying babies strapped to their backs can be seen all over town, eclectic and picturesque. Visiting the local markets, we bought masses of hand woven cushion covers and throw rugs, lamenting and bemoaning prices in basic Vietnamese while the shop keepers laughed at our accents and promised us discounts if we buy more.

Even in summer, the weather is much cooler than Hanoi and the air crisp and clean. Sudden fog and rain are not uncommon though, as we found out, after renting motorbikes and driving up muddy roads and sheer cliff faces to Tram Ton mountain pass near Lao Cai. Just as we got to the pass, anticipating the promise of spectacular views, the road disappeared into dense fog. After several cups of local tea from a solitary tea stand, we climbed back on the bikes and bumped our way back down to Sapa.

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